Lady Honora Aster stood at the edge of the cliff and regarded the black void of the ocean pounding below and wondered if she could blend in anywhere, ever again, or if her life would be the endless onslaught of pain and mockery she endured today. The frothy waves beckoned her, daring her to jump and join them. The cold March winds whipped her auburn curls wildly about her face as she stood in her night rail and wrapper at the edge of the cliff, staring through the thick layer of sea mist. The smell of salt and seaweed hung heavy in the air. Wet fog soaked her night clothing as she watched the water crash onto the jagged rocks below. She felt lost and hopeless.
Her mind spun with memories of the life she had foolishly cast aside. Two months before, she had been on her way to Lady Beaumont’s event, betrothed to Adam Hunter, the Marquess of Greystone. Her disgraceful behavior that night ended her betrothal and forced her to wed another—a man she barely knew, who had waltzed into her life that night and convinced her they were meant for each other. Today, her marriage to that man was anything but what he had promised her. A shiver shook her. Shamefully, in mere months, her former betrothed would return home from the battlefields to find out she had jilted him. And for what? For the man who married her and used her. Tonight, there was only ache, cold, and loneliness.
Closing her eyes, she struggled against the memory of that fateful night.
She had been eager to attend Lady Beaumont’s event. It had been the height of the social season—and the end of life, as she had known it. With Adam off fighting against Napoleon’s armies, her social life had been limited and felt stifling.
As her parents’ carriage slowed to a stop behind the waiting line, she noticed they were already discussing how long they should stay at the ball. Her betrothal to Adam had been the match of the Season, and her parents wanted nothing to mess up the engagement. A sarcastic laugh escaped as she gave thought to it all. Her parents had wanted the engagement more than she had.
Curse her heart, but she had hoped a different lord would offer for her—one who acted as if she did not exist. To make matters worse, it had been weeks since her last letter from Adam. He was everything one could want in a suitor. She would love him, she felt sure of it.
“Honora,” her mother said as she snugged her pelisse closer, “remember you are engaged. Do not dance more than once with anyone.”
“Yes, Mama.” Her mother did not have to worry. She might not love Adam as he professed to love her, but she cared for him and fervently wished he was here tonight to show off on her arm.
However, when Lord David Aster had shown her attention, she had ignored her promises, dancing twice with him, eliciting looks and whispers. The evening had spun out of control when she foolishly allowed him to take her to the garden, knowing he wanted to kiss her. But it had gone so much further—too far. When it did, David had promised they would be happy together. She attributed her foolishness to frustration, loneliness, and too much champagne.
He had professed to love her and had been quite attentive--at first. Honora had thought she loved him, but realized now that she had only been caught up in the moment’s passion. How could she love someone so cruel? Absently, she rubbed her raw wrists. “I had everything I ever could have wanted, and like a dog with a bone, I wanted another,” she muttered wearily. David had lied.
Finally, he had admitted it was all about her dowry. He needed it. Not her. Not this baby. The problem was that her dowry was the settlement promised to Adam with their betrothal contract. The contract she had broken. And her father refused to cede to David’s demands that David be given the money. They had eloped. There had been no contract.
Slowly, she took off her shoes and tossed them over the edge, one at a time, watching them land. One landed on the sandy, rocky bottom, the second on a large, jagged rock just as a fierce wave full of foam slapped at the cliff beneath her. When the wave withdrew into the ocean, the shoe had gone with it.
Honora shifted closer to the edge and stood, her bare toes feeling the wet grass beneath them. Her toes hugged the edge. It gave a sense of control to be there. David had stripped her of her sense of worth, her own sense of being. She had run from him and he followed her, demanding she return to London. She would never return to London as his wife. Tears streamed down her cheek unchecked as she recalled their last conversation.
He had walked in behind her, yelling her name. She hated his voice.
“I have had enough of your family.”
“You are back.” It was more of a statement. She closed her wardrobe and turned to face him.
“Your father refuses to acknowledge me as your husband,” David seethed, his arms crossed.
“David, please . . .our marriage, everything, it all happened so fast.” She glanced where he was looking, curious. He was watching the gardener tending her aunt’s roses in the seaside garden behind her Brighton home.
“You have not supported my needs. I married you as I promised. I gave you my name.” His voice turned ugly, mocking, “Your Marquess would not have married you, once he returned. I did your parents a favor.”
“David, I have pleaded with Father. He refuses.” She touched her belly, unsure of how to break the news. “Why did you follow me?”
He turned from the window and glowered at her. “You are my wife—my property. And you owe me . . .” He grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the bed.
“David, stop,” she pleaded. “My aunt will hear us. Please . . . I am with child.”
His eyes bore into her before he grabbed her by the wrists, twisting them roughly. “What?” he roared. “You tricked me into marrying you so I would give my name to your bastard child.” He released one wrist and backhanded her with his free arm, knocking her back onto her bed before advancing on her.
Shaking, she drew up into a protective ball, watching him through blinding tears. “That is not true. I have only just missed my courses. There has only been you. You know this is truth.”
He had moved toward her, but her words stopped him. Instead, he stood and walked to the door. “Clean up. I shall return at dinner.” With that, he opened the door and stopped. “You shall convince your aunt to support our side, tonight at dinner.” He gave her a last look and slammed the door closed behind him.
Moments later, Bridget tapped on the door before entering into the room. “Your ladyship! What has happened?” The petite maid dropped the linens she carried and rushed to the basin and wet a cloth, carrying it back to Honora.
“Bridget, I cannot take this anymore. He is so cruel. He accused me of having another’s baby.” Honora hiccupped, struggling to catch a breath. “You are the only one that knows what he does to me.”
Her maid pursed her lips and gave a tight nod. “I will see to everything as you have asked, m’lady.”
Bridget was as true a friend as any other. She had grown up with Honora in the Radcliff home. Honora trusted her above everyone, except Evie. She needed to trust that Evie would do one last favor for her. Ashamed and unwilling to hurt Adam any more than she already had, she sat at a small escritoire and withdrew a page of vellum. Quickly, she penned a note to her childhood friend. When it was complete, she sanded it and folded it. Melting her lavender candle, she dripped enough wax for her seal. Satisfied, she reached under her bed and withdrew her valise. Bridget would see the letter here, she thought, stuffing it inside the side pocket.
Honora found herself pregnant, humiliated, and all alone. She had already written to her parents, giving Bridget specific instructions on when she wanted the letters mailed. This was the only way she saw to gain her freedom. Loosening her wrapper’s tie, she pulled it free and watched the wrapper fall. It floated gently on a breeze before disappearing into the fog-laden haze below her feet. She took one last look at the white silk wrapper snagged on a branch partially down the side of the cliff. There were no other options. This was her only way out of a life she hated.
A black carriage rolled up behind her and stopped. She turned and gave a slight nod of acknowledgment to the driver. It was time to leave. Slowly, she backed away from the edge and walked toward the open carriage door her aunt’s footmen held for her. Bridget had a warm pelisse waiting. They needed to make haste before he returned.
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